[Satellite News 06-22-12] Last week, O3b Networks entered into a strategic partnership agreement with Optimal Satcom to acquire its Enterprise Capacity Management (ECM) system in a configuration enhanced to provide familiar management tools in operating O3b’s high-throughput Ka-band satellites in medium-Earth orbit (MEO).
Optimal Satcom is integrating the Ka-band-modeled enterprise ECM with O3b’s other operational and business systems, while developing an enhanced set of tools for use by O3b’s customers, including a special ECM O3b module for service providers. The work is due for completion before O3b commences commercial operation in 2013.
The challenge for Optimal Satcom in enhancing the ECM to model the O3b network was integrating all the computational elements of planning and managing a dynamic non-GEO system under the same hood, while presenting users with a familiar interface to plan and manage their O3b capacity in essentially the same way that they would work with conventional GEO systems.
Satellite News spoke with Optimal Satcom President and CEO Ahsun Murad and O3b Networks Vice President of Sales Engineering and Customer Fulfillment David Price to get both a developer and end-user’s perspective on how this capacity management challenge was solved.
Satellite News: How and when did your two companies engage on this business partnership?
Murad: I’ve known David from back in the New Skies days. We supported New Skies with their planning systems just as we provide capacity management systems to a number of satellite operators and service providers today. Technically and intellectually, the O3b system is a cool system to work with. There’s a great business interest for us both in terms of supporting O3b with their needs and there’s a business interest in supporting our existing customers in making use of O3b capacity and the enhancements made through these tools. As satellite engineers, it’s always fun to work on something new. Not many new things happen in the satellite industry with the kind of engineering skill involved in the O3b system.
Price: O3b, like a lot of start-up companies and systems with unique characteristics, started off with a lot of homegrown tools. Our engineers have written software for us and some of our suppliers have provided software as well. Thales, our satellite manufacturer, provided some of its own innovation in the proof-of-concept phase and other early phases. We used those tools very actively and we were very comfortable with the results they produced. But, as we headed into the launch of our service, we wanted to have a suite of tools that supported the operations side of the business, as well the design side of the business. We did consider taking our existing tools and spending some more time on them or hosting them in a different environment, but I’m a great believer in the practice of looking for off-the-shelf tools that people in the industry are comfortable with and are already using and seeing if they can be used with additional development to support the characteristics of the O3b system. Those tools should also integrate well with other software applications used in the industry. This is the same practice we’ve employed on the ground equipment side of the business. We reached out to Optimal Satcom and several other companies to see what they could do and we selected ECM because it offered a platform that included the unique needs of the O3b system.
Satellite News: How was Optimal Satcom able to make this capacity management configuration for a MEO system fit into the traditional models for GEO satellite capacity?
Murad: We enhanced the ECM to fit the concept of the O3b system. We don’t think of their constellation as individual satellites as much as a collective that’s providing coverage anywhere in the world. From the point of view of our customers, they’ll be leasing capacity not on individual O3b satellites but on the O3b system. The internal details of the system and how they support that static coverage will change, but the customer’s point of view will entail working with those traditional, familiar models.
O3b designed their satellites the real innovation of their system is that it fits in quite well with traditional GEO. Pretty much every other MEO or LEO system has beams that provide coverage while moving with the satellite. The unique aspect of O3b is that they plan to lay down beams and have the antennas continuously steer to maintain coverage over fixed areas. That makes it so they can provide coverage over static areas much the same as a GEO system would. Given that this is O3b’s strategy and the business model O3b wanted, our work was then all on the technical side with providing all the planning and software to make that happen for them.
Price: The O3b constellation could be considered as supporting global map of customer beams associated with gateways that change over time. Clearly, the engineering analysis tool we use needs to consider the fact that the links to the satellite change because the antennas track the satellites in an arc across the horizon. There are some engineering elements of our system that are different from a GEO system. Our satellites are bent-pipe in terms of the RF infrastructure, but from an analysis point of view, the environment can be mapped and modeled fairly easily. This also means that customers who are used to working with GEO systems will see results and analysis in a way that isn’t much different than what they are used to.
Satellite News: How did Optimal Satcom customize its capacity management system to the Ka-band, steerable antenna architecture of the O3b constellation?
Murad: Having a system and a tool that can help you plan GEO capacity alongside O3b capacity is an interesting challenge. The question becomes ‘how do you abstract out the O3b system so that all the technicalities related to its orbit and the dynamics of the system remain encapsulated within this O3b module?’I’ll use an example to describe our approach in delivering an ECM planning and management solution for the O3b constellation. It was like developing an interface for a new kind of electric car. If this electric car came out featuring a touch-screen that drives the vehicle instead of a steering wheel and brakes and all the usual tools a driver was used to, fewer people would be interesting in buying it. A touch-screen is such a radically different concept of navigation that would require time getting used to. The electric car itself is a new concept, like the O3b system, and we provide all the familiar tools — the steering wheel, the breaks and so on — to manage the system. Doing this is a real challenge for us.
Satellite News: How does Optimal Satcom’s ECM system impact O3b’s business model? What does the system allow you to do that you haven’t been able to do before?
Price: On the pre-sales side, it provides our engineering team with an excellent analysis tool to present link budgets to customers and to look at their different network solutions and how they map out to a satellite architecture system. It’s very effective on the asset management side, for planning and resource allocation — where the beams are positioned, the fill factor, etc. — and having information available for the past, present and future. The future is especially important in allowing our customers to pencil in new services in their sales funnel, to be as self-sufficient as possible in pushing out applications to their customers and to manage their services within their lease blocks. They need to be able to look at the ‘what ifs’ and the changes and then pass them to O3b for review and approval and updating in the system. Optimal’s ECM solution plays a critical role in supplying all the operational entities involved — the engineers, the network operation centers and service implementation teams in the field — with the same analytical data.
Murad: What the system does is allow O3b’s customers to plan and manage it in familiar terms. Let’s say you have a customer in Brunei and they want coverage on the O3b system. Their constellation can lay down a beam to Brunei and the satellites in the constellation support that coverage through handoffs for as long as the customer wants. Therefore, now the customer can follow a more or less tradition model of leasing capacity. It is true that the calculations that we need to do to figure out how they are going to get that performance is more complex than it is for GEO satellites. In the end, what the customer is seeing is that they have this fairly static coverage over which they can provide the services that they need to long-term versus another LEO or MEO system where the beam would keep switching around. It’s more engineering work on our side, but I think the result is much more reassuring to the customer.